J.G. Chayko in lounge indulging in a cigar and alcohol/J. G. Chayko dans un lounge profitant d’un cigare et d’un bourbon
J.G. Chayko

I’m in a smoky lounge in a Vegas hotel, the very kind I always imagined myself singing in when I was young. The air is infused with the canned scent of vanilla to mask the smells of cigarettes and booze. The obscure murmurs of gamblers and ringing bells of the slot machines float up from the casino and into the bar. The server brings me a tumbler of bourbon, a generous pour that I would normally not indulge in at home. My husband pulls a matchbook from his pocket and lights the cigar we are sharing. This little indulgence is one of the many sins of RA I don’t share with my medical team.  

When we visit the doctor, they ask us all sort of questions about our lifestyle. The more they know about our habits, the better they will be able to provide the guidelines to treat us and help make our condition stable. The standard questions are things like:  

  • What is your diet like?  
  • Do you include fruits and vegetables, how much calcium are having each day? 
  • Do you smoke 
  • How much do you drink 
  • Do you exercise?  

I answer to the best of my knowledge, and I try to be as truthful as I possibly can but there are just some tiny details I don’t share. 

I don’t keep a lot from my doctor — at least not intentionally — but there are moments throughout the year I never think to mention, like that occasional cigar I have on vacation or that generous helping of hard liquor in a Vegas casino; that spicy margarita on a patio in New Mexico; or that evening spent at the Hookah bar with my girlfriends.  

Before my diagnosis, I was always testing my limits. I took risks with my body without thought or consequences. I didn’t have to worry about disease or comorbidities. I could eat anything I wanted and could treat myself to some wicked self-indulgence on occasion. My metabolism burned off food faster than I could get into my body. I was a bit of wild child — I rode horses bareback without any instruction on how to do so, I drove dirt bikes without a helmet, I rode top speed on my bike down a steep road. This was my raw childhood of the 70s and there was nothing I wouldn’t try. 

This cavalier lifestyle changed when I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Now I had to take stock of my actions and recognize the consequences of breaking the RA rules. Staying healthy without a chronic condition is challenging enough — add a new illness and suddenly the rules change. Now I had to worry about blood pressure, cholesterol, cancer, and infections that put me at a higher risk with an autoimmune condition. I needed to be more aware of taking care of my body. Reducing my alcohol intake, no smoking, cutting out junk food, watching for interactions with medications that could cause complications if I imbibe in those vices that fan the flames of inflammation in my body.  

Indulging in Healthy Limits

I work hard all year to take care of my body, giving it the rest it needs and fueling it with healthy food, water, and exercise — but every now and then, I want to be the bad girl and break the rules.  

When I say break the rules, I simply mean to indulge in a little bit of decadent sin to detach myself from a life with chronic illness and remember what it felt like to be unbreakable for a few stolen moments. We all have our vices and those vices feed our desire for decadence, even if they are forbidden. Forbidden. Something about that word gives me a secret thrill. It’s almost intoxicating, becoming an outlaw in my own life.  

These little rebellions remind me I am alive, a human being with imperfections and desires. We all have a little bit of a rebellious nature in us — sometimes it feels good to bend the rules for that little rush of adrenaline that flushes through our bodies. The only difference is this time there’s no one to answer to except ourselves.  

With chronic illness we are given recommendations on lifestyle to maintain wellness and there are some things that are just not recommended for us while on treatment, but sometimes the habits and practices acquired over the years are the very things we crave, even when we know they will impact our therapy. We still want to enjoy things, even when we know they’re not good for us. We do it all the time, don’t we? We have that extra little bit of chocolate; we sneak a sip of our favourite spirit or enjoy the occasional deep-fried food. Why not? There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of decadence so long as it’s within healthy limits.  

Learning to Bend the Rules

Knowing when and how to bend the rules is key. It’s a skill we learn, much like when we had to learn how to shift our life to accommodate our disease. Once we learn our triggers and learn how to manage them, stealing errant bits of pleasure in moderation can be good for our spirit. Decadence doesn’t have to be cigars and alcohol (those are my own naughty vices — get your own) — there are loads of things we do to bend the rules, enjoy life, and not endanger our health.  

Just to be clear, I indulge in my little vices in extreme moderation — this is not a daily occurrence, not even a monthly occurrence. That once-a-year cigar is sometimes once every two years; that tumbler of hard liquor is barely a finger at home. Will I mention these things the next time my doctor asks? Probably not — not unless it’s interfering with my treatment and managing my disease. When I do break the rules, I do it when I’m at the peak of wellness in terms of disease activity so that I don’t have to deal with the unforgiving aftermath. 

We know our own bodies well enough to know what happens when we buck the rules and play with our boundaries, but every now and then it feels good to indulge in a little decadent sin. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to make some popcorn and a dirty martini — but that’s our little secret, right?  

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